A landmark building

September 14, 2001

Using his web tools John Whalley, eTutor of the Year, made sure his animal care students kept learning despite foot-and-mouth's impact

Bishop Burton is a rural college on the edge of the Yorkshire wolds. The location probably makes it sound a sleepy hollow, and sometimes I wish it were. But we have a large working farm on site, and foot-and-mouth restrictions had a serious effect on business and teaching.

For two years, the college has used a virtual learning environment provided as part of the Learning in the New Millennium (LiNM) project, which involves 18 colleges in and around Yorkshire. The environment is called the On-LiNM building, a name that led some staff to seek it on campus. But On-LiNM is virtual: it has an on-screen entry door, floors and rooms.

After a trial run with GNVQ advanced business students, the building went into use to deliver learning resources, materials and evaluation for more than 200 of our full-time students. For the eTutor of the Year 2001 competition, sponsored by The THES and the Learning and Teaching Support Network, I entered the higher national diploma course in animal care, which covers zoology and animal psychology. The course shares lectures in enterprise management with the higher national diploma in countryside management. All told, it involves about 60 students ranging in age from 18 to late 50s.

My work in the agricultural industry fuelled an early interest in information technology. Since starting as a lecturer at Bishop Burton 15 years ago, I have helped develop its IT systems. The LiNM building presented me an opportunity to combine IT and teaching in an exciting new way. My aim was to provide:

  • Students with ready access to course materials they might have mislaid
  • Lecture materials online for students who could not attend my lectures
  • A discussion forum not dominated by a few vocal students
  • In-depth investigations of specific topics
  • Regular exercises to assess students that are marked by computer where possible
  • Access to these resources through the campus intranet or from any PC via the internet.

At first, I put lecture notes in a "room" just after the lecture, thinking that students who preferred liquid to mental refreshment might not attend at all. As all lectures used PowerPoint, it was not hard to put them on the web.

I soon learnt that as long as I produced presentations in advance, it was better to post my lectures into a "room" at the semester's start and "reveal" them to students weekly. An unexpected advantage was that when foot-and-mouth restrictions hit us in February (though fortunately not the disease), very near the start of the semester, students were able to get lecture notes. I also produced course "recaps" to try to ensure that students did not miss out.

The second success was the online discussion. Two hour-long sessions a week were timetabled so that I could be available for consultation or tuition at specific times. This time was used to monitor and guide the discussion forum. I also monitored emails and, when necessary, saw students face to face.

All general topic-related discussion was held via the forums. Students who did not participate sufficiently or who had not contributed in the correct way were contacted via email. But they did not need to show attendance in their timetabled slot as long as they provided regular input via the system over the term. A big benefit for the college management was that this method reduced rooming costs because I could tutor from my office.

The challenge was to get students involved and to ensure that all but the most technophobic contributed, researched and studied. I decided the best way was to make participation an assessed part of the course. Students were assessed 60 per cent on assignment work and 40 per cent on computer-based multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and participation in the discussion forum.

The students were divided into groups of about ten, and each group was set a task and a deadline. Groups of five or six are probably better, but this means more groups and more topics to monitor. I did not want to repeat topics or allow students to repeat another group's work. Students were able to contribute to the group work up to the deadline, but the deadline was non-negotiable. Not a single student handed their work in late. It seems students argue less when the deadline is electronic.

Participating students were able to talk over problems by emailing me or students in their group, but the discussion forum was the main area for communication. The assessment weighting was 10 per cent each for group discussion overall, involvement in the group effort, and individual knowledge of the topic. Students had to achieve at least one-third in each. This year I may set a mid-semester review date for students because some left their participation until the last few weeks, which impaired the discussion with the rest.

Once the discussions were completed, each forum was opened to all students on the course. Because each discussion was on a different aspect of business management, the exchanges as a whole comprised an extra information source for the students to use in completing their written business plans at the end of the semester.

The final aspect of the course design was regular assessments of student progress. In this I made my biggest mistake. I decided to set exercises whereby students could access protected spreadsheets that they had to complete. Each student then submitted his or her answers, which were assessed and commented on. In theory this was fine. In practice it meant that every time I placed this type of assessment on the system, I had to find and review dozens of student submissions in reply. After three weeks I was beginning to suffer. I decided to post a set answer and asked the students to contact me with any areas that they did not understand.

A simpler system was to put up MCQs. I used these as formative assessments and placed the questions in the students' course room for five days. They were allowed one go at answering them, which forced them to do the background reading. Once the deadline for the MCQs had passed, the students were allowed to see their answers and grades along with the correct answers. With a previous year, I had made the mistake of allowing students to review the answers as soon as they had completed the MCQ - amazing the number of correct answers you get from other students when you do this.

I have been encouraged over the past two years by how readily most students take to using a virtual learning environment. You know that you have their attention when they begin chastising other group members for not having contributed properly or for trying to include flippant remarks.

There is a lot of debate about what is the best virtual learning environment. Some people may hold up their hands in horror at ours. But as someone who simply wants to enable students to learn, this misses the point. If my only means of communication were two tins and a tight piece of string, as long as it could make it easier, more effective and more enjoyable for my student to learn, I would consider it a good thing.

John Whalley is lecturer in business management at Bishop Burton College.

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